Cambridge, Feb 2018
Having had the one room for quite some time, the original Cambridge ER venue, based in an industrial estate just out of the town centre, Cambridge Escape Rooms now have three rooms to choose from.
Just like their original room, the designs, puzzles and theme are lifted from some of the most respected rooms in Budapest. However, this time it’s not TRAP creating the experience, it’s E-Exit. Their well respected Heaven and Hell room has made it to the UK.
After some confusion about gaining entry to the venue (intercom entry systems for ER Venues almost always suck), we had our briefing, and were led to a new part of the venue for the game itself. The owner assured us they’re working on a new lobby area which will make the initial experience much nicer in future.
The theme for this game is quite an odd one. The general gist is that you will be exploring the afterlife, both in Hell, and in Heaven. Presumably to check out which appeals the most, and then back to normality once you reach the end, and you can reanimate yourself.
It’s certainly novel, if a little strange! Once in the room, an initial puzzle kept us stumped for quite some time – we’d waste around 10mins+ just on that one. A hint, and we were on our way.
After a relatively glib start in terms of decor and mood, the game really delivers from an atmospheric perspective as you progress through the hour. Hell was particularly well done, and forms the meaty chunk of the game in the middle. Heaven a little less involved, but also interestingly designed, with a great physical set piece which formed part of the set, but also a task.
Whilst the decor and theming is excellent, some of the puzzles felt a little contrived, and in some cases completely incongruous. Without spoilers it is difficult to explain, but you will understand once you play this room yourselves.
A word of warning has to be attached to any review of this game – it really is not suited to claustrophobes. There are some confined spaces to deal with, that are brilliantly on-theme. It might be possible for the games master to circumvent this on demand, but best check with the venue before playing if tight spaces are not your thing.
They’re really not my thing either, but at least I knew about it in advance and was prepared for it. It was almost fun in the end, fortunately! For non-claustrophobes it will be a delight.
We made relatively quick progress after the poor start — we were playing this as a pair, and my co-escapee was fairly inexperienced. That said, nothing felt unfair at any stage, and this room is definitely achievable as a pair.
My main gripe with the gameplay (other than the first puzzle being a blocker and fairly obtuse) is the puzzles and challenges which don’t really fit the the theme. It’s hard to understand why logic puzzles, arbitrary shape puzzles and the like couldn’t be adapted slightly to have relevance to the theme. It’s the last bit of immersion that many rooms lack. Everything you do should have some relevance to the task at hand, or at least the theme. Creating a dinosaur based Escape Room? Don’t use geometric shapes for a puzzle, use dinosaur bone shapes instead. It’s not hard to create the last bit of polish in my view.
In Heaven and Hell’s case – this was only really a problem towards the end, it faired well for puzzle theming in general.
Getting back to our progress: we rattled through the final, gruesome challenges in Hell and we gained entry to the Heaven section. We were running short of time by this stage, but some rapid solving and a couple of leaps in the dark to help us move forward paid off.
Finally, the last puzzle was complete and we were out in 58mins or so.
Playing on a different occasion to Chris’s visit, my experience matched his in some respects and contrasted in others. Our group did in fact include someone who was quite uncomfortable with the more claustrophobic moments of the game, but the gamemaster was happy to help her bypass the one section that she’d have struggled with.
We had similar problems with the opening puzzle, spending ten minutes stuck until we swallowed our pride and accepted a hint. Both that and the other times we struggled to progress were mainly due to us approaching it with the wrong mindset: the logic of the game is different to many escape games, and we completely failed to think of solutions that were in retrospect completely reasonable and obvious.
While agreeing with Chris’s point about making puzzles theme-relevant, I’d add that large parts of Heaven and Hell are gloriously successful in that respect. It’s a game that stands out for the novelty of its interactions, and how those link back to the theme. There are some moments in games that just stand out, which are the ones you talk about when chatting to other enthusiasts, saying ‘hey, there was this one game I played where…’. Heaven and Hell boasts not one but several of these.
The rooms are energetically painted with a great contrast between the different areas. The decor style does a good job without being one of the game’s strengths; they’re well decorated puzzle rooms rather than the type of lush, immersive environments that some top-tier games achieve. A little background audio could help with the atmosphere there.
While my team got stuck more than once, I didn’t feel that was due to anything unfair in the design. You need to make the right intuitive leaps at times, and if you don’t you’ll need a hint to progress; but they’re pretty reasonable intuitive leaps that I kicked myself for not thinking of sooner.
Overall though it’s a game that’s cool and memorable for its highlight moments; those are what you’ll be talking about afterwards, and they’re excellent justification to go try this game out.